(A review by John Davies)
From Noirlac to Conques:
Modern Stained Glass and Monastic Tradition.
A lecture by Dr Jonathan Koestle-Cate.
16 May 2018
Dr Koestle-Cate teaches History of Art at Goldsmiths College, London, and is on the editorial board of the journal Art and Christianity. The subject of his lecture forms part of his current
research, so we were getting something sharp and at the cutting edge.
We learned first of a revival of stained-glass making in France after World War II, when damage and destruction elicited three possible reactions:
1. Leave the ruin in ruins, as a mark of what had happened.
2. Restore or replace as closely as possible what had been there before – i.e. make replicas of what had been destroyed: or
3. Introduce new art into ancient buildings.
The lecture mainly discussed two examples of the last option
The first example was windows for Noirlac Abbey by Jean-Pierre Raynaud, completed in 1980. These were severe, centred on light, uncoloured. The artist used grid formations and said of his
work “extreme asceticism employed corresponds to my sense of the sacred.” His pared down aesthetic thus served the original Cistercian architectural sobriety. The description “presque-rien” – almost nothing – used of his work, points to his unobtrusive yet modernist use of grids which were not always quite regular but offered to the contemplating eye subtly varying patterns into light, while his use of uncoloured glass permitted the eye to look beyond even as the light
entered. (This is my interpretation, not what the lecturer explicitly said.) The artist’s aim was to be unobtrusive, “to avoid wounding the building”, to enter his late 20th century vision into the timeless one of the Cistercian order.
We were then taken to an abbey further south, not a Cistercian foundation though sometimes thought to be so. The designer in glass here was the famous French artist Pierre Soulages the
place the Abbey of Saint-Foy at Conques and the period of making 1986 – 1994. Soulages created an effective organisation of light by means of a “ ‘white’, translucent but not transparent glass.” This was achieved after over 300 experiments, as he worked with “major stained-glass workshops and a master-glazier to… invent a glass that would achieve the desired effect.“ Within, this gave “a radiant and subtle light“ – from outside, the Abbey seems ‘ “hermetically
sealed.” (I found this effect particularly alien, expressing, I thought, the elitism apparent in quotations from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux cited elsewhere in the lecture). But the amazing achievement of both artists is to place in ancient sacred spaces works of modern, of Modernist, art which express a self – or artist – effacing sobriety in harmony with Cistercian contemplative theology. That their aesthetic derives from a 20th century minimalist approach makes their understanding of and respect for the buildings, the sacred spaces, all the more remarkable.
Soulages, in particular, says he is an atheist. This artist of the “beyond black“ so respects the architecture of the Abbey at Conques which has been important to him since boyhood, that he
has been able to create new work which serves the old with almost total unobtrusiveness, and to reflect, through his fidelity to the building, the theology of those who originally used it, Cistercian
This lecture was delivered with admirable clarity. Its argument was, I think, that the two twentieth century artists so attended to the architecture of the ancient buildings concerned that they
expressed the buildings’ theology – or ideology- without damaging this meaning. This point was not always taken by the audience, as the ensuing lively discussion revealed. However, for me, it
was the spine of an excellent lecture excellently delivered. There was just the right number of visuals to make clear the lecture’s points and we had long enough to look at them – some were
brought back a second time. Dr Koestle-Cate gave us much to think about: the place of art in worship, prayer and contemplation, the use or non-use of colour in sacred spaces, the relations between the modern, even the secular, and the mediaeval sacred, and the question of uncreated light (Lux) and the physical light we see (lumen), discussed by Robert Grosseteste in De Luce and
of concern In different ways in both western and eastern churches during the period of these two buildings’ construction.
It was a rich evening, and I for one am most grateful to our speaker.
NB. I received further help from Dr Koestle-Cate who supplied me with a copy of his lecture and from the Reverend Canon Paul Overend who gave me the notes for his vote of thanks at the end
of the evening. However neither is responsible for my errors and/or misunderstandings.